Gonzaga Reaches Final Four Nearly 20 Years After Cinderella Coach Bolted For "Better Job" at Minnesota

By Stephen Douglas

Gonzaga will play in their first Final Four on Saturday. It’s been nearly 20 years since they burst onto the national scene as a Cinderella, making the Elite 8 as a 10-seed and losing by 5 to eventual National Champion UConn in 1999. A lot has changed since then – most notably, Gonzaga’s head coach.

Dan Monson became an assistant coach at Gonzaga in 1988. In 1994 he was named associate head coach. In 1997 he was named head coach. In 1999 he took Gonzaga to the Elite 8, beating Minnesota (7-seed), Stanford (2), and Florida (6). He then did what mid-major coaches do after a successful tournament run – he traded up for what was considered a better job at a power conference. History does not agree.

In Monson’s case, he went to Minnesota and the B1G Big Ten. The Golden Gophers proceeded to make one NCAA Tournament appearance and 4 NIT appearances in 7 seasons. Seven games into his 8th season he resigned. He’s been at Long Beach State ever since. Meanwhile…

Mark Few took over when Monson left. Gonzaga has now made 18 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances under Few, advancing to five Sweet 16’s and one Elite 8 (until this year). They’ve been a 4-seed or better seven times. They’ve been so good for so long that it’s been years since it was possible for them to overachieve. If they don’t win a title next week, the season will widely be considered a disappointment.

The year after Monson got to Gonzaga, Few started as a graduate assistant. From 1990 to 1999 he was an assistant coach, obviously lower on the totem pole. If Monson had stayed at Gonzaga, who knows how long Few would have remained. How many schools would have jumped at a chance to land Mark Few over the last 18 seasons? He made two Sweet 16’s in his first two seasons as a head coach at a then mid-major.

And poor Dan Monson. What if he had held out for a job at a real basketball school. Or just stayed at the one he had helped build. Of course, maybe the Bulldogs lose in the first round to Virginia in 2001 (They won by one point) and there’s a butterfly effect that puts West Coast Conference foe Loyola Marymount in the Final Four this season. Or what if Minnesota hadn’t been short-handed because of an academic scandal in the first round in 1999?

I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere. Basically, you’re damned if you do, you could be damned if you don’t. That, and be in the right place at the right time. Life can be so easy.